“Art, for me, is about drawing when you are broken,” young Moroccan illustrator Zainab Fasiki recently told an audience at the American University of Beirut. “It’s drawing when you want to express something that you can’t really talk about.”

Fasiki’s cartoon-like illustrations address gender inequality, sexual harassment, and the suppression of women’s bodies. Her art calmly but firmly pushes back against taboos in Moroccan society that she sees as a source of oppression and violence. She seizes on issues that are typically kept in the dark and brings them clearly into the light. But her journey has not been easy.

Zainab Fasiki was born in the storied city of Fez, where social mores are typically more conservative than in other major Moroccan cities. She completed a degree in mechanical engineering, a profession she felt pressured to pursue to make a living. After working in that field for a short time, she left to work as an illustrator.

At only 24 years old, she now lives in cosmopolitan Casablanca, where she draws, hosts workshops, and starts big conversations. Fasiki recognizes that she is expected to defend her choice to veer away from engineering to art. Men, she said, have long told her what she can and cannot do. While studying and working in mechanical engineering, for example, male colleagues insisted that engineering was not “women’s work” and that she did not have the capacity for it. Fasiki emphasizes that she left that field not because she could not handle it, but because she wanted to do what she loved, and engineering was not “it.” Art is.

Her experience is not uncommon in Morocco, where, as in most of the world, men typically impose the rules on how women should live. Fasiki’s frustration with sexism, gender inequality, and sexual violence in Morocco and the MENA region in general fuels her artwork. She seeks the liberation of women throughout the Arab world from what she sees as repressive expectations, regulations and norms enforced by family, the media, and society at large.

Zainab Fasiki sports a hip, black bob with bangs, big, compassionate eyes and a charming smile, recently liberated from braces. Her own body is her most common subject. Fasiki’s illustrations often are self-portraits, many of them nude, with captions such as, “In the hammam [Moroccan public bath] Zainab loves relaxing and enjoying this planet.” Others feature a giant, nude Zainab towering over the Casablanca skyline; Zainab as Wonder Woman; a nude Zainab entwined with her “close friend,” a giant snake; Zainab, arms akimbo, saying, “I’m sick of their beauty standards.”

The message, she says, is about “making bodies free.” Although her work provokes harsh criticism and insults from her conservative milieu, Fasiki’s choice to draw nude women is a statement she is unwilling to censor. “We’re always hiding the female body,” she says. To her, it is nonsensical for society to stigmatize and fear female bodies, when, she says, they are normal, “physical part[s] of our universe.”

This, of course, is not a uniquely Moroccan phenomenon. Patriarchal societies by and large impose many more limitations on the public expression of women’s bodies than that of men’s bodies.

Justifications tend to be religious, moral, or couched in questionable, paternalistic concerns for women’s safety. Such limitations might manifest themselves in the enforcement of modest dress, conformity to narrow beauty standards, restricted freedom of movement and travel, male guardianship or gender segregation in public spaces. A legal system may enforce these rules, but neighbors, friends, family, or religious leaders do much of the quotidien policing.

Generally put, the suppression of women’s bodies is a tool to maintain control. The established social order demands hierarchy and uses an arsenal of regulations and norms to guarantee men the upper hand. When a woman does as she pleases with her body, it disrupts that control, threatening the social hierarchy.

This kind of social attitude tends to rely on the erroneous premises that women’s bodies exist only for the sake of attracting men and that men innately lack self-control. A woman’s body, publicly visible, dancing freely, or just existing boldly in the company of men would be seen as a dangerous provocation of men’s desires.

No matter the circumstance, women’s bodies become equated with sexuality–something that they are then expected to suppress. As Iranian-Canadian scholar, Hiadeh Moghissi writes, “female sexuality has to be confined, tamed and controlled for the good of the community.” She conveys pre-revolutionary Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Motahhari’s dismay that unveiled women were making the country’s youth “weak, pleasure-seeking, lustful oglers,” rather than symbols of “strength, will-power, and productivity.”

Zainab Fasiki expressed frustration that, while women are expected to hide their bodies in public to prevent “provoking” men’s lascivious thoughts or deeds, society does not expect men to control themselves. Men’s desire attains the status of being both feared and privileged.

In the rare cases when sexual harassment or rape are reported in Morocco, female victims typically are often accorded blame for provoking the “uncontrollable” and “natural” urges of their aggressors. They are told that they should “cover up,” that they should not have been there at that time of the night, or that they were “asking for it.” Men evade responsibility for their actions by transferring the fault onto women’s bodies.

Photo credit: Zainab Fasiki

Until 2014 when Morocco revoked its law, Morocco absolved rapists of violating underage girls if they agreed to marry their victims. Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan followed suit in repealing their equivalent laws in 2017.

Broadly speaking, many conservative, religiously-defined societies have long obsessed over maintaining the purity of women’s bodies while simultaneously casting them as corrupters. They often depict an innate and destructive tension between genders, in which a “pure” woman (devoid of her own humanity or personhood) inevitably tempts men to mar their own mental and spiritual purity.

Women make spiritually lofty men reckon with their own “sinful,” corporeal humanness. Whereas a woman’s expression of sexuality is seen as a transgression and punished with debasement, men who feel desire are “understood as victims of female seductive power,” writes Moghissi.

The perceived loss of control at the hands of a woman provokes resentment, anger, and fear. This gender-differentiated fear can have deadly consequences, as exemplified by the brutal killings of witches (read: powerful, liberated, exceptional women) from the 15th to 18th centuries in Christian Europe.

For Zainab Fasiki, normalizing women’s bodies in art and in media goes hand in hand with countering the pervasive, dangerous objectification and sexualization of them. The female body, she says, is “also an artistic subject that must be accepted.” If women’s bodies are normalized and de-sexualized in the public gaze, she suggests, the violence against them will be lessened.

Moghissi writes that it is men’s “explicit and implicit fear of female sexuality and women’s power of seduction that explains the seclusion and surveillance of women in Islamic cultures,” as well as in conservative Jewish and Christian cultures. She understands the source of this “anxiety” in part as a male preoccupation with “sexual performance.” Fear of women’s sexual sovereignty runs parallel with entitlement and possessiveness. Some men, unwilling to accept a woman’s freedom of choice, perpetrate violence when she says no. Some seek to hide women’s bodies out of fear of other men “stealing” them.

Misogyny can also masquerade as benevolence. Paternalistic patriarchs argue that women need to be limited in their public expression to keep them safe from abusers. The guardianship of women’s moral purity for want of social order is privileged over individual rights. Leaders across the world have used women’s protection as a justification for war, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

To be clear, Fasiki and other advocates for gender equality in Morocco are not arguing against any particular lifestyle another woman may choose. In no way does she condemn women who choose to wear modest clothing, abstain from sex until marriage, or embody normative gender roles.

“All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

She is arguing simply for the freedom for women to choose to live however they please, without legal or social retribution. Women, she argues, should have exactly the same rights to personal liberty and freedom of choice as men. As U.S. Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her first argument on women’s equality to the Court, put it, “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Patriarchal societies teach their members, regardless of gender, that the system in which they live is inherent, absolute and immutable. Maintenance of that system and its gender roles is seen as fundamental to societal survival. Women thus can also be agents in the perpetuation of patriarchy as well, by policing the bodies of fellow women and issuing moral judgments to friends, family, or strangers.

Fasiki told Spanish magazine S Moda that she has “never felt free in Morocco,” whether on the street or in her drawings. With respect to her drawings, Moroccan printers have largely been reluctant to work with her. Consequently, much of her printed work has been self-published or published by independent magazines.

“The internet took power away from the patriarchal powers; it opened a new space for meetings, sharing, and learning.”

Her largest platform, however, is the internet. She “found freedom” on Facebook and Instagram, where she posts most of her work. As she explains it, social media is a liberated space where an artist can freely share work that might otherwise be censored. Feminist activist Lamia Bazir agrees, writing that during the youth-led February 20 Movement, “the internet took power away from the patriarchal powers; it opened a new space for meetings, sharing, and learning.” Fasiki’s “most daring cartoons” are on social media.

Besides her uncensored portrayal of women’s lives, Fasiki’s art comments directly on the treatment of women in Moroccan society. One illustration, drawn in reaction to the violent sexual assault of a woman by several boys on a Casablanca bus, bears the caption, “Buses are made to transport people, not to rape girls.”

Another series of cartoons revolves around Super Khadija, a superhero who encourages women to follow their own paths and stay financially independent, rather than relying on a husband. In one drawing, captioned “Stop Violence Against Women,” a woman is tormented and bruised by speech bubbles that say, “No one cares about my rights,” “I want to be protected,” and “Respect me!”

A wide swath of liberal, progressive youth and adults in Morocco and abroad applaud Fasiki’s work. She has been invited to conferences on censorship and comics in Egypt, to artist residencies in Europe, and to speak at the American University in Lebanon. She holds popular, monthly workshops in Casablanca called Women Power, in which young female artists gather, learn artistic skills, and film videos that speak to their experiences.

Yet, she faces a tough audience. Fasiki laments that even her parents are still embarrassed by her work, though they seem to be slowly coming around.

In a Moroccan magazine Skefkef, she recently published an educational cartoon that explained puberty and sex. For this, she received a barrage of insults and accusations that she was trying to encourage sex and “bad things” for Moroccan teens. Premarital sex is not only taboo, but illegal in Morocco; unmarried, sexually active women in particular are typically castigated and condemned as “prostitutes” by general society. Hiadeh Moghissi, writes that female sexual desire is, in fact, “recognized and legally sanctioned in Islamic tradition,” but is only accepted within the context of marriage.

Fasiki’s art is inevitably controversial. She recently released a project called Hshouma,” a Moroccan Arabic word meaning something in between “shame” and “taboo.” In Morocco, she explains, there are “many taboos and many domains that cannot be discussed with family or at school.” When young people ask questions about things like puberty or sexuality, they are told that these things are hshouma, and should not be discussed. These topics are relegated to private whispers between people of the same gender. Fasiki wants to change that.

The taboos she targets relate to gender, sexual education, body shaming and awareness, and social freedoms. She writes that the silence and lack of institutional education on these topics lead to “social problems.” To Fasiki, this absence of conversation is “the root of the problem of gender violence among young Moroccans.” The solution, she says, is education.

Through Hshouma, Fasiki hopes to shift the narrative by unabashedly discussing these taboos. She uses “illustrations, comics, articles, videos, and events” to broadcast clear-cut, aesthetically appealing messages. At the moment, Hshouma exists as a pamphlet, a website, and social media accounts, all full of striking, black-and-white drawings and words, in a mix of English and Moroccan Arabic (Darija). Fasiki’s intent is to collaborate with the public to develop the project into a free, Darija-language educational platform for youth and adults.

Fasiki notes that Darija actually lacks words to talk about some of these taboo subjects. Often, the words that do exist are insults. Thus, one goal of Hshouma will be to create “an exact vocabulary” to provide Moroccans the vocabulary to talk about and understand these ideas in a constructive way.

On the Hshouma website, she breaks down in clear language the social construction of gender. One page gives simple definitions of patriarchy, objectification, and racism. Another offers a basic primer on sex education, explaining intercourse, contraception, and the spectrum of sexuality, in a matter-of-fact way without fanfare.

The message may be rooted in intense frustration, but its levelheaded simplicity is perhaps a much more effective, accessible medium than fiery rhetoric. Even just the simple acknowledgment of the existence of menstruation, as in one page, can be a radical step when the topic is normally unspoken in mixed company.

In Hshouma, Fasiki also confronts social restrictions that limit women’s freedoms to live independent, empowered lives. Among them is “being an activist.” Her own activism has resulted in significant backlash. Fasiki regularly receives insults and harassment, mostly, but not entirely, from men, who lob misogynist slurs and stereotypes at her, or deny her legitimacy in subtler ways.

She has been attacked for being a feminist–a term that her critics deem sexist and threatening. Pragmatic and well aware of the prickliness of that label, she seeks broader acceptance by calling herself an “equalist” or a “gender democracy activist.” The concession is coherent, but, as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, rejecting the term “feminism” is “a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”

Her art is clearly pushing people’s buttons. As she has said, drawings, which tend to be more striking than words, often have more power to kindle changes in a society. Fasiki’s drawings, however, do not attack politicians or point fingers. Rather, they try to raise awareness of problems and present alternatives.

As her current platform is largely limited to digitally connected youth, one could argue that her art lacks the reach needed to truly shift societal attitudes. While it might not shake the foundations of Moroccan society, it is a rivulet that adds strength to a broad, multiform movement of Moroccan feminism that is slowly carving the country into a new shape. In a recent milestone, Morocco enacted a bill that defines and criminalizes certain types of violence against women, but activists say it falls far short full protection.

Fasiki is resolute in her mission and confident that she has a “message of peace.” Art, she says, “is not a crime,” but “a tool for peace.” As she sees it, she advocates simply for people to love each other, no matter their personal choices. To highlight the false virtue of the criticism she faces, Fasiki asks, if she is not hurting or insulting anyone, why would people treat her so harshly?

The world for which she advocates would upset a status quo in which her critics are comfortable and empowered. Disrupting social norms signifies a disruption of social hierarchy, which, in this case, is gender-specific and favors men. Men thus resist her defiant work.

The policing of women boils down to expressions of fear, fragility, and hunger for power.

Patriarchy associates being in control–of people, property, families, influence, morality, or knowledge–with men and masculinity. Men fear losing their control, even if it is only over a household, and are taught to protect it vigorously. Gender equality would threaten an established system that favors male control, patriarchal lineage, and traditional masculinity.

While masculinity is traditionally associated with strength, it is more accurately defined by fragility. The perceived threats to a man’s masculinity–and thus his level of control–are abundant. Something so easily threatened is fragile.

“Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage . . . . By making them feel they have to be hard . . . we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

Constant combat is required to maintain a perceived ideal of masculinity. Things as varied as emotional vulnerability, dining on a woman’s tab, and the color pink threaten traditional masculinity and thus are fiercely avoided. Adichie also wrote that, “masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage . . . . By making them feel they have to be hard . . . we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

When faced with women in positions of superiority or who perform traditionally male characteristics–assertiveness, outspokenness, self-advocacy–men react defensively, as if their territory has been threatened. Such is taken as an unacceptable personal offense, breaching the bounds of an innate, immutable reality.

But that reality is socially constructed. Apologists for patriarchy may cite shaky evolutionary biology that edifies gender biases and claims an ancestral social necessity for male domination. Social science has amply demonstrated that social norms and gender roles are not innate, but learned, from parents, teachers, and peers.

Society teaches men to be loud and demand the things they desire, while teaching women to be silent and giving. When a woman like Fasiki loudly and proudly demands equality, this upsets the learned gender roles.

Adichie wrote that women are taught to cater to fragile male egos. “We teach girls shame. ‘Close your legs. Cover yourself,’” she explains, “We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women . . . who silence themselves.” She adds, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”

“I just want to live the way I want.”

While some misconstrue feminism as a threat to the security of society, or assume that feminists demand power at the expense of men, the society that feminists like Fasiki envision is one in which men share equal status with women — where economic, political, and social power and freedoms are distributed equally, regardless of gender. Fasiki sums it up concisely: “I just want to live the way I want.”